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Point of View 


Eminent Australian
pianist/composer, Bill Risby ,
answers the following question...

Bill Risby

November 2010

The Question:
How does experiencing acoustic music compare to amplified music?

by Bill Risby share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Acoustic versus Amplified Music

Our world is a vastly different acoustic place from what it was in our recent past. For a little over 100 years we have had the drone of automobiles, airplanes, and more recently refrigerators, televisions and computers as our noise floor (or our "silence"). Our music comes from computers, CD players, iPods, Hi-Fi systems, large line array speakers, amplifiers, radios and headphones (both around our ears and IN them).

Once upon a time our "silence" was wind, rain, nature, horse and carts and speech. Our manufactured sounds and music emerged from beautifully crafted instruments with vibrating wood or brass, strings of gut, and shaped metal (including carillons, bells, wood blocks, log drums etc..).

Just about 150 years ago the first recording device was invented (and 130 years ago with parts of the human ear!) thereby introducing the beginning of the amplification of sound, and all the consequences (good and bad) associated with being able to listen to music without people playing it in front of you. In the very recent past music has often been made by people who don’t own or play an instrument, and have no knowledge of music.

Before this point in history the size and design of a music venue was determined by the acoustic volume of the instruments played and the number of instruments playing at once (orchestras being suitable for larger concerts), and the combination of instruments was determined by whether an instrument could be heard over another, or whether their acoustic vibration blended well with another instrument. In the past the idea of a "band" playing in Sydney Stadium was ludicrous and unheard of, let alone a solo guitarist/vocalist in a similar venue.

Popular music on the radio (pop mania) with bands such as the Beatles made a large contribution towards this changing. When the Beatles famously played in the USA for the first time, they were playing in the Shea stadium to 55,000 people through 100 watt guitar amps (including their vocals). The screaming throngs completely drowned out the music.

From wikipedia:
"The Shea Stadium concert on August 15 was record breaking and one of the most famous concert events of its era. It set records for attendance and revenue generation. Promoter Sid Bernstein said, "Over 55,000 people saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium. We took $304,000, the greatest gross ever in the history of show business" demonstrating that outdoor concerts on a large scale could be successful and profitable."

What has happened to our musical world?

Have we confused volume with quality? Have we replaced quality with quantity? Our sonic landscape has changed in many ways. Here are a few changes over time:

We have generally replaced small intimate concerts with highly amplified mass concerts in entertainment centres and outdoor stadiums. We now watch the artist on a very large TV surrounded by speakers, or they are hundreds of metres away in miniature.

We have generally replaced going to live music performances with the purchasing of LPs, cassettes CDs and DVDs.

We have as a whole contributed to the mp3 revolution by accepting the replacement of a large sound file which contains all of the sonic information recorded in a studio with one which is 1/20th to 1/30 its size which is much lower quality, compressed and out of phase. No one seems to care.

We have replaced purchasing CDs with purchasing these inferior mp3 files over the internet (mostly out of convenience), and fill our mp3 players with hundreds of albums, many of which we never listen to.

CD shops are all but gone. Mp3s are easily copied and stolen off the internet and shared between friends. Nobody pays for music anymore so artists can no longer afford to record music, as they have no income. There is an economically much smaller music industry but the same number of musicians. There are less venues to play in as people no longer come out in numbers for entertainment. Their entertainment is at home or in their pocket.

Positives and Negatives:

There are many musicians I would have never heard in my lifetime had I not had a recording of them. I thought Keith Jarrett would be one of those people until 2005, when I saw him live at the Congresgebouw in the Hague at the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Unfortunately the quality of the "live" sound compared to the sound I enjoyed on his CDs was far inferior, although I enjoyed the spectacle of being in the same room watching him play music. Had I been in front of the piano, or at least close enough to hear it without amplification, I would have enjoyed the music as well as the visual. It wasn’t so bad that I didn’t hear what he was playing, or appreciate his genius, but I heard NOT A SINGLE vibration from the instrument he was playing. I only heard air vibrating from the speakers on the sides of the hall. The sound was coming from a different place to where I was looking, and it was the sound of three people playing together from one point in space. I can say I saw him live, but unfortunately I can’t say I heard him live.

I did see Brad Mehldau play solo piano in a small hall in Copenhagen and I could hear the piano (the actual piano) as clear as a bell.

There is the point of view from the musicians to consider too. Playing in a venue designed for the acoustics of an instrument has become a real savoured treat. A double bass player walking in with just a bass and a bow, and hearing it clearly whilst playing in a group, shouldn’t be the exception. It should be the norm. Hearing it well enough for the player to play in tune should be motivation enough for us to lobby the government and the gods to bring back acoustic venues...
I am playing in a concert hall next week, and I was asked by our sound engineer if I would play my keyboard instead of the Steinway piano in the venue, as It’s not possible to amplify the piano enough to overcome the rest of the band. A digital keyboard over a real piano?? Really?

I think the crux of this argument as illustrated in this example above is that amplified sound comes through speakers, usually uniformly shaped and often monophonic (and imminently controllable), whereas acoustic music comes from instruments vibrating, and often many instruments of different shapes and materials vibrating in sympathy with each other, coming to our ears from a very broad sound stage. Our attempts at trying to replace this acoustic experience have failed miserably, although our attempts at marketing its amplified replacement as a viable listening option have succeeded greatly, and partly because we (on the most part) love to be able to "own" music and take it with us, or see it en mass.

Will I ever hear Keith Jarrett in a small room without a microphone? Probably not, so I am thankful that I have heard him at all. After all, he lives on the other side of the world, and pianos are heavy objects. Most people will never experience this, but I can never forget the first time I sat in the middle of an acoustic orchestra and cried because of the sound. It had a tangible physical affect on me, and one which seems can’t be bought anymore.

Bill Risby

© 2010 Bill Risby

Have Your Say
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Nice article Bill. Makes me want to organize a string of acoustic concerts right now!

Posted by Ian Date on Saturday 11 December 2010

Thank you to all for your comments. I didn't realise that my musings would piqui such an interest, especially in something so personal to me.

Posted by Bill Risby on Tuesday 30 November 2010

The physical act of listening to music (acoustic or otherwise) is such a subjective experience.  I love being able to hear nuances in the pieces as these are often spontaneous and therefore unexpected.  It is unlikely to be heard however (in many venues) unless the music is amplified.  I'm so glad that I'm on the receiving side (ie not a musician) as I'd be very unhappy on many occasions with the "quality" of the sound in a lot of venues - large and small

Posted by Sharon Thompson on Friday 26 November 2010

I feel very privileged to have heard Bill play completely acoustically and the beauty of it elevated me to tears. Bill also said something profound about playing music in venues with ambient noise already in existence. He said it's like someone trying to paint something beautiful on a canvas that's already brown. Thanks for another great essay Bill.

Posted by Tony King on Tuesday 16 November 2010

Loud music distorts your ability to hear what is being amplified furthermore it destroys your hearing and the dynamics which are a very important part of listening. Harvey Maguire

Posted by Harvey Maguire on Saturday 6 November 2010

That's a great article Bill, with nice historical perspective.  Another observation is that jazz and pop acts that perform in venues like Angel Place and Sydney Opera House seem to require amplification to 'balance' or clarify their sound in the very same spaces that string quartets and orchestras play without any amplification. Venues that suit music with rhythm section instruments with or without amps, are usually drier, with a bit of life to let higher range instruments and voices resonate. Occasionally a sound engineer can orchestrate a sophisticated mix that can complement and enhance the sounds made by the musicians. Such an engineer is usually a part of the band, and can create a sound which rivals the experience of a good hi fi system at home. Daniele di Giovanni is one such sound engineer. But it takes a lot of time in sound checks, and many things can and do go wrong. The vibration of natural instruments is magical by itself. You're right Glenn, Colbourne Ave is a WONDERFUL place to play, for that reason and many others.  At the end of the day, Excessive or unnecessary amplification seems to be the result of two things: the economic necessity to reach larger audiences in an attempt to compete with a mass digital market, and a sense of desensitazation in which volume equates with power. People's hearing is in real danger in night clubs and discos.  I agree with Eric's position, in that people will listen if they want to hear. Amplification is largely unnecessary. I really enjoy the intelligent and insightful articles that appear on this forum - thank you.

Posted by Paul Cutlan on Monday 1 November 2010

Hi Bill. I too have been moved to tears from the wonderful sound that the musicians produced. I had just spent the day in a studio and we were recording songs for an album. I took the “roughs” away with me after the days recording and played it back in my car on the way home. The instruments were a combination of acoustic instruments and electric; acoustic piano, guitars and percussion and electric bass and guitar as well. I was very lucky to be recording this album in one of the best recording setups there is with the most high end analogue and digital equipment there is and a real “engineer” at the helm. I was producing the recording and had prepared the arrangements and charts and had a working model going on in my mind before attending the session and I think this is what got to me. I had chosen a most glorious group of musicians for the job and the interpretation and performance they provided was a wonderful joy to listen too. I was over whelmed by the dynamic control, tone, feeling and life the musicians had brought to those arrangements. Even though I was listening in my car with background road noise and limited reproduction system, I could still get this emotional response from what I was hearing. I have pondered this issue and have no conclusive answers but I do have a few ideas. Firstly, I believe I had already begun to generate neural pathway in my brain to fit with these models I was imagining and when I then actually had the chance to hear them from my ears there was something familiar already there to resonate with in my head so to speak. In other words, I could relate to it. Its like listening to your favourite tune on the radio with all its noise and distortions but you still enjoy it. Conversely, if you were to stand next to the conductor listening to the tune you hate the most, you will still not enjoy it. The emotional response may well be one of discomfort in fact. Secondly, I have spent a great deal of time trying to record acoustic instruments in such a way as to capture the resonance of the instrument. This is not possible!. As you so rightly pointed out, an instrument like an acoustic bass for example, the instrument resonates to different wave lengths and some sounds emanate from the sides, some from front sound boards, the back and so on. There is no single point in space where all of the air pressure/waves truly combine so as to capture the whole sound. Also, as we hear with two ears (generally), we could not hear a single point source sound anyway. What we will hear is the air/waves with some phase issues due to the distance our ears are apart. This is good though as it helps us with direction and spatial dimension. One technique I have found successful when trying to capture and acoustic sound source is to use two microphones about as close together as our human ears are, no more no less and this does tend to capture the resonance in a similar way to our ears and when reproduced through a stereo or mono system, it still sound fairly natural providing the signals are not distorted by equalisers, compressors and so on. At least today we have recording systems that can come closer to capturing the wide dynamic range of some acoustic performances that may include many players such as an orchestra may have. It is a conundrum, I too would not have heard Stanley Cowell for example if it were not for recording although it was on a wonderful instrument, recorded in a good room on quality equipment so the quality of the recording process was a factor and I guess that’s my point (finally!). If care is taken with the recording or reproduction of acoustic or electric performance then we have at least a chance to enjoy it and bring about an emotional response. Poor recording/reproduction technique, poor arrangements or poor performance will always leave us wanting but if it is done well, then that’s ok. Steve Newton. ENREC STUDIOS, Tamworth NSW.

Posted by Steve Newton on Monday 1 November 2010

Thanks Bill. A most accurate comparison. I am sure your points would hold up in the world of the visual arts as well. (Digital photography as opposed to seeing something with the naked eye). I was training a young engineer in the studio one day and I began to explain some of the points you made in your article. The kid was so excited about all the technology and electronics and was blind to any talk of acoustic music. I finally said to him "it's like the difference between looking at a beautiful picture of the ocean and jumping in it." One might say that both could be a soul quenching experience. They both might lift and inspire. But in a similar  way to your experience if sitting "amongst" the orchestra, jumping in the ocean is an immersion. You can truly feel the experience. You can "taste the salt" When finished my grand explanation be looked at me and said. "Yeah, I went for a swim in the ocean the other day. I got stung by a blue bottle....." Good grief!! Cheers John Morrison

Posted by John Morrison on Monday 1 November 2010

Bill you are absolutely right. Real sound is priceless. And I wondered why I was enjoying my iPod less recently.... Tuesday before last I had a rare acoustic experience - I played at Colbourne St., Glebe, with a quartet(Barney Wakefield-piano, Peter Kolhoff-bass, and John Morrison-drums. I was able to use my softest mallets on the vibes (the ones that actually make the prettiest sound), and even played one ballad on bass flute (my softest horn) without mikes. Some impartial listener said the bass flute was not only audible, but may have been a bit too loud for the drums! This was lovely and I would recommend doing or catching a gig there anytime; I went back last week to hear Peter Locke, Andrew Dickeson and Alex Boneham doing classic piano trios - great! As for stadium sound -well I'm sure you don't have to go overseas to find disappointments in that area. I was sad that I couldn't hear a good balance though the sound system of the Sydney Opera House when I attended a duo concert of two of my favourite players; Chick Corea and Gary Burton some ten years ago. Where i sat, two thirds of the way back in the stalls, the vibes accompaniment nearly drowned out Chick's piano solos. I'm sure they felt it was all right onstage. I've been told that the P.A.balance depends on where you are sitting, but I couldn't help feeling that if they left the microphones off, the musicians might have made better balance acoustically! I love a real symphony orchestra, I love getting close to it. Even if I'm at the side or the back where the balance is a bit wrong, because it is acoustic you can still hear everything. I didn't actually cry the first time I got a gig playing third clarinet in the ASO, but I was struck speechless and was unable to actually blow for some minutes as Respighi's Festi Romani raged about me! Bill, thanks for your article. You do make the synth sound quite warm and quasi human at least- but I'll look forward to the next time I get to hear you on a real piano up close and personal!

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Monday 1 November 2010

I don't think amplified instruments in general sound as good as the real thing. I played in pubs and clubs for a large part of my musical life and came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter how loud you amplify your band or your instrument. If audience members want to talk to each other whilst you are playing your best solo ever they will do so. And you'll never win. I refrain from commenting on sound operators - many of whom claim the tag 'engineer' without the expertise. Toni at Petershame RSL Club is the exception. Eric Holroyd

Posted by Eric Holroyd on Monday 1 November 2010
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